Do-Nothing Cooking

It was a mild and breezy week-end morning. “Yeah! We are going to work in the garden today! In the garden! In the garden!” I heard the song gain in strength as the gardeners thumped upstairs. “Get up amma!”, they called. I was lingering on in bed, savoring the warmth of the summer quilt.

“What is this?” I asked a little later. The husband was back from somewhere brandishing several sinusoidal wave-like sticks of blue. Could they be fancy walking sticks?

“No – silly. These are for the tomatoes.”

“Yes – don’t you want large tomatoes from the plants? Look, they are already sagging outside.”, said the father-in-law pointing to his pride and joy in the garden. “The rasam can be even tastier with these tomatoes.”, he said with a sly grin on his face.

“Can you make rasam without tomatoes? I just don’t like tomatoes but I like the rasam otherwise.” said the daughter.

This I-Don’t-Like-Tomatoes theme was getting a bit tiring. I rolled my eyes, and stamped my foot in exasperation. “I do not know how to make tomato rasam without tomatoes! Let me know when you make it. ”

“Okay okay! Sheesh kababs! No need to get all cranky if you don’t know how to cook something.” she said and made off to the garden dragging her little brother with her to help her grandfather.

“Make rasam without tomatoes indeed!” I muttered to myself as I gathered the garlic, cumin, pepper, tamarind and tomatoes for rasam. Once the rasam was comfortably simmering, I went back and forth from the kitchen to the garden. Every now and then I was beset upon to give directions and suggestions for the garden. I asked for an old rose plant and the star jasmine creeper to be pruned.

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“But they are poonchedis ” said the father-in-law reluctant to cut flowering plants. South Indians have this strange, but endearing affection with flowering plants. I assured him pruning was good.

The children were busy discussing how to plant the other little flowers and herbs in the garden. The son was looking mighty impressed with himself for he was patted with admiration by his elder sister on the gardening tip he had provided.

“If you put a garlic in the herb garden, then nothing will happen – you know? Nothing. Yes. Ms Lara told us that. No insects will come.”

“Really? We can do that.”

“What?! Do we have garlic in the house? I didn’t know that!”

“Of course we have garlic in the house! How else do you think we can do any Indian cooking you little diddle gump?”, said the chef, who wanted to make tomato rasam without tomatoes.

The little brother was suitably impressed and a few frozen cloves of garlic made its way to the patch containing the Thai basil leaves.

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I looked at the father-in-law. He was tackling the unruly star jasmine creeper with energy. The jasmine had crept up the adjoining fir and cherry trees and was busy making its way past the garden fence. I saw the intense concentration on his face, and surveyed the garden. He must have taken lessons from the barber in the best army in a past life, for the trees had an efficient crewcut demeanor when he was done with them.

The whole scene reminded me of a short story, Annamalai, by R.K.Narayan in The Grandmother’s Tales. The story is about a gardener who had stopped on with him. The gardeners horticultural knowledge and classifications are simple. All flowering plants were ‘poonchedis’ while non-flowering plants were ‘not poonchedis’. The story writes of his taking charge of the garden and how sometimes he would go on a rampage and prune everything in sight, and the garden wore a threadbare, forlorn look for a few days afterward. At other times, he let things be, and the garden flourished anyway. It is a beautiful story that transports you to a little garden in South India almost instantly.

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I smiled thinking of the story. My horticultural knowledge is as woeful as that gardener’s, and my father-in-law’s botanical classification was equally simple. However, I hope our garden too thrives. Maybe we will become the best advocates of the Do-Nothing farming that Farmer Fukuoka speaks so highly of in the Biomimicry book by Janine Benyus.

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Quote from Biomimicry book:

A young man named Masonobu Fukuouka took a walk that would change his life. As he strolled along a rural road, he spotted a rice plant in a ditch, a volunteer growing not from a clean slate of soil but from a tangle of fallen rice stalks.

This proved an inspiration for the young boy : how a grain thrived without the need for coddling and soaking in water canals and so on.

Over the years Fukuoka would turn this secret into a system called Do-Nothing farming because it requires almost no labor on his part and yet his yields are among the highest in Japan. His recipe, fine tuned through trial and error, mimics nature’s trick of succession and soil covering . “It took me 30 years to develop such simplicity” says Fukuoka.

Instead of working harder, he whittled away unnecessary agricultural practices one by one, asking what he could stop doing rather than what he could do.

A sizzling sound alerted me to the rasam simmering over its sides. I charged into the kitchen wondering how to better the Do-Nothing cooking technique.

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When the daughter was younger and had yet to start going to a classroom atmosphere, the father asked her to lift her right leg. Being the loving grand-daughter, she did. Then he asked her to lift her left leg and she obliged, by stamping the right foot down and lifting the other. Not satisfied with the legs, he started in with the little arms and asked for the left arm. Then the right arm, and both arms together. (Luckily, we have only 2 arms and 2 legs, for this gripping tale would have had us spouting steam otherwise.)

Having seen all this, he asked her to lift both legs together, to which she hardly spent a moment thinking and simply lay down on the floor and lifted both legs looking like a very adorable pup waiting to be tickled by the owner.

Fast forward to a time when formal schooling did start and the same exercise has her thinking about the problem and saying, “But the only way to do that is jump and see if we can fly!”

What makes me remember this you ask. A book I was reading recently: It spoke about how some tribes know not the notion of time or numbers. (They don’t need either concept for their survival.) This book actually has remarkable powers, because it has enabled me to forget the title and clean swiped the power of resurrecting the title from the dark crevices of the brain.

Anyway, according to the author, who spent many happy months among the tribes, Piraha Tribe in Amazon, trying to observe and study their behavioral patterns, he noticed something. When given a series of dots and told to plot them on a number scale between 1 and 10, the tribes with no formal introduction to numbers placed the numbers closer together as they approached 10, and farther and farther apart near 1 and 2. Their natural instincts were to think logarithmically.

A study that coincided with how kindergartners plotted their numbers. Basically, the tribes and the children saw the combination of dots as the pattern. Two dots together doubles the area of one dot, but 9 dots clustered together is only marginally smaller than 10 dots together.

But as these kindergartners approached second grade, they plotted the numbers from 1 to 10 evenly spaced on the number line. We move away from a more complex method of thinking logarithmically naturally to thinking linearly, and then relearn the logarithmic concept later in life.

It is a fact that structured thinking has its benefits, but I often wonder how different we would be if we were allowed to retain our ability to think with out being clouded by what is taught to us.

Edit: Relevant links:

Piraha tribe

Kindergartener Number Study